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To POD or Not to POD? Some Pros and Cons
by Moira Allen

Return to DIY Publishing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A question nearly every author asks -- at least, every author who's ever had difficulty getting a book published the "traditional" way -- is "should I do it myself?" With the advent of print-on-demand technology, the do-it-yourself option has become increasingly appealing.

Print-on-demand publication is a process that enables a publisher to produce books individually rather than in quantity. Instead of printing hundreds or thousands of books in advance, a POD publisher prints books only when they are ordered. The manuscript is stored as a digital file (usually PDF). POD books can be produced in softcover or hardcover, and some publishers also produce full-color books and picture books.

Make no mistake: POD publishing is a form of subsidy publishing, also known as "vanity" publishing. Though many POD publishers prefer to use the term "self-publishing," paying for publication does not make one a "self-publisher" (see sidebar). However, POD offers a tremendous advantage over traditional print subsidy publishing, which generally costs thousands of dollars, offers pitiful royalties, and often imposes restrictive contracts on the author.

Counting the Cost

Since you're not paying in advance for the printing of hundreds or thousands of copies of your book, POD publishing costs far less than print subsidy publishing. In theory, you're simply paying a "set-up" fee to enter your book into the publisher's system, ready to print at the touch of a button.

In reality, of course, it's not that simple. Costs vary widely in the industry. Of the "big three" POD publishers (Xlibris, iUniverse and 1stBooks [now AuthorHouse]), Xlibris charges a "base" price of $500, while iUniverse charges $459 for its "select" program. Smaller companies, such as Booklocker.com, often charge less (Booklocker's set-up fee is $217). Borders, which has recently launched its own POD service, offers a basic price of $199, for which you apparently simply receive ten copies of your book; if you want it to be distributed and have an ISBN, the price is $499.

If you want more than "basic" service, however, prices can skyrocket quickly. For example, Xlibris charges $1600 for its premium service -- required if you want to provide your own cover or custom-design the interior of your book. iUniverse's "premier" program, which includes an editorial review and a marketing workbook, costs $699. Most POD publishers also offer a smorgasbord of extras, such as proofreading, editing, illustrations, author photos, interior design options, author proofs, copyright registration, and a variety of marketing and promotion tools (such as postcards or brochures). [Author's Note: These were the prices quoted in 2004; since then, prices have risen even higher.]

Another cost to consider is the cost of obtaining your own books. Most programs offer between two and ten free author copies; after that, you must pay for books at an author discount (usually around 40 percent). If you want to send books to reviewers, you'll have to pay for them yourself.

Print-on-demand books can be expensive for readers as well. The retail price is based on the number of pages; for example, a 99-page paperback from Xlibris would cost the buyer $14.44, while a 300-page book would cost $19.54. A 100-page book from Booklocker costs $11.95; a 300-page book would cost $15.95. Prices are higher for hardbacks -- and often much higher for the same book if it is sold through a reseller like Amazon.com. While readers are accustomed to paying $15 or more for paperback nonfiction, commercial paperback fiction prices are generally lower -- so think twice before sending that 600-page novel to a POD publisher!

Royalties range from 10 to 35 percent, depending on where the books are sold. Most POD publishers pay higher royalties on books sold directly from their sites than for books sold through resellers (like Amazon.com) or distributors. For example, a 200-page Xlibris paperback sells for $18.69 from the website (with a royalty of $5.50), and $21.99 on Amazon.com (with a royalty of $2.20). Booklocker.com offers 35 percent royalties for books sold on its site, and about 15 percent for books sold through other outlets.

How Well Do They Sell?

According to a recent New York Times article, the "big three" -- Xlibris, iUniverse and 1stBooks -- have published a combined total of more than 45,000 books, selling an average of 150 to 175 copies per title. Averages, however, can be misleading.

In 2003, for example, Xlibris circulated a promo declaring that it had published 9000 books since 1997, and sold 300,000 copies. Punch those numbers into your calculator, and you'll find that this gives an average of 33 sales per title. But that's just the average. If just 20 percent of those titles sell 100 copies apiece, the remaining 80 percent are left with an average sale of 16 copies per title. In reality, a few books actually sell far more than 100 copies -- which means that a great many titles must sell less than ten copies apiece.

Another difficulty is locating POD titles in bookstores. According to the New York Times article, only half a dozen or so of iUniverse's 17,000 titles actually appear in Barnes and Noble -- even though Barnes and Noble owns 25 percent of iUniverse. The primary problem is that traditional booksellers and distributors expect deep discounts from publishers -- discounts that POD publishers aren't able to provide. They also expect to be able to return unsold books, which POD publishers can't afford.

Consequently, the vast majority of POD sales occur through the Web -- and successful POD authors are those who have mastered the art of promoting online. To sell your POD book, you need to be able to reach readers in the online community, including buyers who are comfortable making their book purchases online. This usually means developing your own webpage (most POD publishers will set up a book page for you, which can include reviews and other information). Many POD authors promote their books through chats, online author interviews, and book review web sites. (Most "mainstream" review sources, such as major newspapers, won't review POD titles.)

Savvy promoters do beat the odds. The Writers of Chantilly, a Virginia-based writing group, have published three short story anthologies through Xlibris; the first two volumes have already sold more than 300 copies combined. A handful of books, such as Dave Distel's true-crime story The Sweater Letter (published by iUniverse), have sold thousands of copies. But big sales are still the exception; out of iUniverse's 17,000 titles, only 84 have made it to "star" status by selling more than 500 copies in the first year.

From POD to Published

Many authors hope that POD publishing can serve as a stepping stone to "real" (conventional) publication. In a handful of cases, it has -- but only a handful. John Feldcamp, CEO of Xlibris, told the New York Times that only about 20 Xlibris titles have been picked up by conventional publishers -- despite the fact that Random House owns 49 percent of Xlibris.

The best way to get a conventional publisher's attention is to sell a substantial number of books. If you can demonstrate that your book has significant sales potential -- e.g., you've managed to single-handedly promote and sell 1000 copies or more -- chances are good that you can attract a conventional publisher. Otherwise, however, conventional publishers pay little attention to POD, subsidy- or self-published titles.

Fortunately, if you do get a publisher's attention, most POD contracts allow you to terminate the POD agreement quickly and without any extra fees. Unlike traditional print subsidy publishers (which often impose contracts that are every bit as restrictive as a conventional publisher's), POD contracts are generally author-friendly. Most ask nothing more than the nonexclusive right actually publish and distribute the book. POD contracts rarely ask for any share of subsidiary rights (such as movie or translation rights). Some impose a minimum term, such as one year, on the contract, but others can be terminated at any time.

On the flip side, many authors turn to POD when their published book goes out of print. This can be a way of keeping your book alive when it no longer has enough market to interest the original publisher. Before you try to republish your out-of-print book, however, make sure that you have regained the right to do so. Most publishing contracts include a "reversion of rights" clause that explains how to reclaim your rights if the book goes out of print.

Before you decide to publish your book in POD format, ask yourself what you hope to achieve through publication. If your goal is to produce an attractive, professionally produced book, POD technology can provide it. If, however, your goal is to see your book on bookstore shelves and in the hands of thousands of readers, POD is probably not the way to go. POD is a relatively inexpensive way to get your book in print -- but the rest is up to you!

Sidebar: Self-Publishing or Subsidy?

Many POD publishers are trying hard to blur the distinction between "subsidy publishing" and "self-publishing." Subsidy or "vanity" publishing has always had a bad reputation; hence, POD publishers tend to refer to any form of paid publication as "self-publishing." However, self-publishing and subsidy publishing are two distinct models of paid publication.

Simply put, self-publishing means becoming one's own publisher. As a self-publisher, your book's ISBN is registered to you, and your name and address will be listed under "publisher" in Books in Print. You have complete control over the design of your book. Once your book is printed, you own all the copies. You can set the price on your book, and change that price or give the books away for free if you wish. All rights remain with you, and every penny of revenue that you earn from the sale of your books belongs to you.

Subsidy publishing means paying another publisher or entity to publish your book for you. The ISBN of your book is registered to that entity, not to you. When your books are printed, they are owned by the publisher. You often have no say over the price of the books, nor can you choose to give them away (or, often, to send them to reviewers without first "buying" them yourself). You may have limited control over the interior or cover design of your book. You may be required to give up certain rights to the book to the publisher. When a book is sold, you receive a percentage of the revenue in the form of royalties.

[Author's Note: After publishing this article in The Writer, I received an angry phone call from the PR department of one of the "big three" POD publishers (I won't mention which one) claiming that my figures were inaccurate. I asked the caller if she could provide more accurate figures. She replied huffily that it was my job to do the research and get more accurate figures. I pointed out that the primary way an author does research is to ask the company, and if the company was not willing to provide "more accurate figures" on request, there wasn't much else I could do! I never heard from her again...]

For more information, see Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What's the Difference? by Moira Allen

Find Out More...

The POD Quandary: How to Decide if Print-on-Demand Publishing is Right for You, by Brenda Rollins

The Price of Vanity, by Moira Allen

Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What's the Difference? by Moira Allen

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Sign that Print-on-Demand Contract, by Sue Fagalde Lick

Helpful Sites:

Books for the Asking, by Eric Taub (New York Times, 10/17/2002)

Dehanna Bailee's Print-on-Demand Database
Offers a comparison of rates and services of various POD publishers

Got a Book in You? More Companies Than Ever Are Willing to Get It Out, by Gayle Feldman (New York Times, 3/1/04)

Writer Beware: Print On Demand

Copyright © 2004 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared in The Writer.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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